Pro-Israel groups in Britain are facing resistance in their attempts to use a controversial definition of anti-Semitism to stifle Palestine solidarity activism. Concerns over free speech are being heeded by universities and local authorities, in what is a boost for Palestine rights activists currently holding, or preparing to hold, Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) events on campuses nationwide.
In December 2016, the British government announced its “adoption” of a definition of anti-Semitism agreed on earlier that year by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Described as “bewilderingly imprecise” by David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, the definition is promoted by the IHRA with an accompanying list of 11 examples of how anti-Semitism could manifest itself today, including criticism of Israel.
Ever since Theresa May’s government gave its (non-legal, non-binding) endorsement, a number of groups in Britain have dedicated considerable time and resources to seeking support for the definition from, among others, councils and higher education institutions. Almost immediately, though, there was pushback from those who saw in the definition, and the way it was being used, substantial dangers to free speech and legitimate political activism.
In March 2017, the Director of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Valerie Amos, told the BBC that her university did not intend to adopt the definition. “I consulted with our own Centre for Jewish Studies on this,” she explained, “who basically said this definition is a contentious definition.”
In May 2017, the University and College Union – which represents 110,000 academics and other staff – carried a motion overwhelmingly rejecting use of the IHRA definition, and noting “government-inspired attempts to ban Palestine solidarity events” such as “Israel Apartheid Week”.
Now the London School of Economics (LSE) has also joined those who, while accepting the 38-word definition of anti-Semitism produced by the IHRA, have explicitly rejected the list of suggested illustrative examples, which include criticism of Israel. “The School wishes to clarify that it is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Government of Israel without additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent,” an LSE official wrote in a letter last month. “The School also does not accept that all the examples the IHRA lists as illustrations of anti-Semitism fall within the definition of anti-Semitism unless there were additional evidence to suggest anti-Semitic intent.” The letter’s authenticity, which was published on a pro-Israel website, was confirmed to me by an LSE official.
Universities UK, meanwhile, the influential representative organisation for universities, has resisted efforts by pro-Israel groups to express support for the IHRA definition. According to a spokesperson, who spoke to me earlier this month, Universities UK does not have a position on the matter.
In a submission to an ongoing Parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech at universities, the Board of Deputies of British Jews told MPs that universities should “adopt the IHRA definition to enable them to make considered judgements about what is and is not considered anti-Semitism”. The Board acknowledged, “However, there is a worrying resistance from universities to adopting it and free speech is given as the primary reason for their reluctance.”
Such reluctance is well-founded. Last year, an IAW event at the University of Central Lancashire was cancelled by university officials, on the basis that it supposedly contravened the IHRA definition (and following pressure from pro-Israel advocacy groups). This week, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism said it hoped that there would be “similar successes” in getting student-run IAW events cancelled this year. The Israel Britain Alliance – a Zionist Federation project – is also basing its “efforts to stop…[IAW] events” on the IHRA definition.
Read: Zionism is anti-Semitism
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Matthew Offord told Parliament on Tuesday that “the words ‘Israeli apartheid week’ are manifestly anti-Semitic,” based on the IHRA definition. Thus, he argued, ministers should consider “bringing forward the necessary legislation to prevent [IAW events].”
In Brussels, too, the chilling effect of the IHRA definition as used by Israel advocacy groups is already being demonstrated in the attempts to get a European Parliament event featuring Palestinian human rights defender Omar Barghouti cancelled. In a letter to European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, the pro-Israel groups claim that Barghouti, and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement he co-founded, are guilty of “anti-Semitic” statements and objectives respectively, “according to the [IHRA definition].”
However, while Israel advocates clearly see the IHRA definition as a tool for the suppression of Palestine solidarity activism and Palestinian voices, there is an interesting dispute, and lack of clarity, over what exactly the definition consists of. The IHRA’s “non-legally binding working definition of anti-Semitism” is published online inside a clearly-marked black box. It is a 38-word text, which reads as follows: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The same text appeared, also in a distinct black box, on the IHRA press release announcing the adoption of the definition in May 2016.
Those 38 words are then followed by a much longer text, which includes the list of examples of how contemporary anti-Semitism might manifest itself; this is the part where criticism of Israel is, controversially, included. Are these examples actually part of the definition itself, though?
According to the IHRA Permanent Office in Berlin the answer is no. In an email dated 12 September, 2017, an IHRA official confirmed that the definition consists only of “the text in the box”, with the examples intended to “serve as illustrations” for how anti-Semitism “could [emphasis added] manifest itself”.
It seems that this confirmation was a slip up or, at least, is not being repeated. I approached the IHRA Permanent Office about this and, bizarrely, found it impossible to get a clear confirmation of what the definition actually is, either by email or over the phone.
In a five-minute conversation earlier this month, an IHRA staffer repeatedly met my request to clarify whether the definition is purely the 38-word text by saying that I should “refer to the information on our website”, or “just include a link to the IHRA website”.
When I pointed out that certain bodies are endorsing the 38-word text, but not the accompanying list of examples, the official acknowledged that “it’s up to the discretion of the institutions and the authorities to adopt whatever they think is useful”, but still refused to answer the simple question.
While the IHRA is curiously reluctant to clarify what constitutes the definition, others have already decided: a statement I received from a European Commission spokesperson made a clear distinction between the “definition” on the one hand, and “the non-exhaustive examples” on the other.
Some local authorities in Britain are similarly only adopting the 38-word text; recent examples include Manchester City Council and South Northamptonshire Council. When Liverpool City Council endorsed only the 38-word definition, one pro-Israel activist was furious – prompting Merseyside Friends of Israel to affirm that the two sentences were, in fact, “the actual definition”.
The confusion – and potentially intentional ambiguity by the IHRA – over what constitutes the definition, the pushback over free speech and the crude attempts at censorship by those who (falsely) claim that the definition “proves” that events like IAW are anti-Semitic, are all very familiar. That’s because the story of the IHRA definition has echoes in the tale of its ill-fated predecessor, the EUMC draft working definition. This eventually became discredited and abandoned, after pro-Israel advocates used it – in the words of one of the definition’s authors – “with the subtlety of a mallet”.
Despite those efforts, Palestine solidarity activism and the BDS campaign in particular have grown and expanded across Europe, including Britain, in direct relation to the policies of an Israeli government that continues to colonise the West Bank and devastate the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s apologists are not going to stop redefining anti-Semitism in order to target solidarity with the Palestinians. However, they are unlikely to stifle an anti-apartheid movement which, in an era of Trump and Israeli annexation, is only going to find more participants both on and off campuses around the world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.